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Editorial: Keep voter rolls public to keep public’s trust

Public voter rolls not a safety issue

First Published Jan 18 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jan 18 2014 01:01 am

What is the price of government transparency? In the case of Utah voters, it’s having some out-of-state dude put your name, address and birth date on a web site.

That’s a little unnerving, but it’s not reason enough to end Utah’s long practice of making voter information independently verifiable.

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Utah State Sen. Karen Mayne is the latest legislator to propose that voter records no longer be public because of concern over privacy and identity theft. It’s a natural concern, given the debate between privacy and data collection.

But this isn’t the NSA. It isn’t even someone selling your name and shopping habits, which is happening every day. In this case there is no evidence that anyone has stolen someone’s identity from voter records. Not in Utah, and not elsewhere.

To be sure, Utah has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the nation. If this were a real initiative for encouraging more voting, we would be on board.

But let’s turn that around. Suppose these records are not made available and all of the sudden voter rolls go up by thousands. Are you going to be comfortable that those new voters are all real people? What kind of chilling effect would that have on participation?

Sen. Mayne’s bill tries to address that. It proposes some exceptions to keep that verification alive, but they raise constitutional questions. An exception would be made for political parties, to use the records to communicate with voters, and journalists, to perform their news-gathering functions. Scholars and other government entities could also get access.

The Tribune does not publish this voter data in the paper or online, but we have used it as a check on other data. There have been times when we may have two similarly-named individuals — one of them accused of a crime — and the birth date on voter data is used to distinguish one from another.

Presumably that would still be allowed under Mayne’s bill as a journalistic function, but it’s still troubling to see restrictions on access to public data, even if we’re exempt from those restrictions.

Who is a journalist, anyway? In a world where anyone can start a blog with the intent of informing the public, who is going to be making the "you’re a journalist/you’re not" distinction? If that out-of-state dude makes some claim that he has a journalistic responsibility to tell the world who Utah’s voters are, we’re right back where we started.

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Keep voter rolls public to keep the public’s trust in voting. It’s not worth the hassle of hiding them.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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